Indonesians have long associated the stars with the supernatural, looking to the bright points in the sky for guidance in understanding the past and future. But in 1961 the country’s first president, Sukarno, ordered the construction of a planetarium to enlighten the people in the way of science.
Construction on the Planetarium and Observatory at Taman Ismail Marzuki, Central Jakarta, began when the complex was still home to the city zoo, before the exotic beasts and birds were moved in 1964 to Ragunan in South Jakarta.
Funding and development was disturbed in 1965 when Sukarno was replaced by Suharto following allegations of an attempted communist coup and resulting period of unrest, but the planetarium was finally finished in 1968, the same year that TIM reopened as a center of traditional and contemporary arts and culture.
The planetarium’s main attraction today is the dome-shaped Star Theater, where real-time imagery of Jakarta’s night sky is projected onto aluminium plates overhead to recreate the feeling of watching the stars at night in the great outdoors.
Chief technician Ameer Fatwa Idris says that the one-hour show depicts the sped-up movement of the stars from sundown to the following dawn. The planetarium also has nine stock movies that it projects onto the overhead screen, but due to complaints from confused visitors, only one is regularly shown.
“We have nine movies talking about the universe, the north and south poles, the equator and the life cycle of stars, among other topics. But it seems that most of our movies are too technical for visitors, who are so confused by all the unfamiliar terms and sophisticated explanations that they can’t enjoy the experience,” Ameer said.
“This especially matters to parents taking their children along for an introduction to astronomy. Some parents have said to me after the show that even they, as adults, are confused by all the explanations, so they don’t know what to say when their kids ask them about the show. Now we only put on the one where we learn about simple planetary objects like constellations, planets and satellites,” he added.
Parents bring children of all ages to the shows, and can often be heard comforting crying babies or toddlers as the room turns pitch black before the stars come out. Once settled, young children tend to enjoy the show.
But older children visiting on school trips are known to cause even more trouble.
“[Middle school] kids often slash open the seats with razors and other sharp objects for no reason, while others run all over the Star Theater making loud noises,” Ameer complained.
The whole establishment was revitalized in 2009, when the interior was repainted and refurbished. Ameer mentioned that the management wanted to use blue like the rest of the building for the walls and seats, as it is the official color of the planetarium representing the sky. But in the end, the current dark red color was chosen to show more of an atmosphere of elegance and class.
Besides the Star Theater, the planetarium also has an exhibition hall where it houses unique space objects that visitors can interactively learn from. There is even an actual meteorite almost the size of a human head that fell to Earth in the 1980s.
Ameer said that a piece of the same rock was then traded with NASA for a model of the Apollo 11 and the Challenger, now also on display in the exhibition hall, and a full-scale astronaut space suit that is displayed separately in the main hall for everyone to see.
Don’t forget, this planetarium is also an observatory. There are three telescopes at the center, and one is open to the public. There is always a long line of star-gazers waiting for a chance to peek through this telescope in the event of an astronomical sighting or phenomenon like an eclipse.
The planetarium runs daily shows from Tuesday to Friday at 4:30 p.m. and three shows on weekends. Combined with the admission fee for the center the ticket price is only Rp 7,000 (73 cents) for adults.
While visiting TIM, there is always plenty more to see, from theater and dance performances to live music shows and movies at the in-house cinema.
But for those who want to enjoy Jakarta from the inside, above and beyond, the Planetarium and Observatory is the place to catch a show that lets you see past your everyday reality, filled with more stars than a Hollywood blockbuster.